Of Tennessee's four full-grown cities, Knoxville and Nashville are the two oldest, and the two whose names Yankees most often confuse. But the very idea of "rivalry" might strike Nashvillians as absurd. After all, it's been 180 years since the two cities were very close in population and political or economic heft.
But it's still there, lurking in the woods just beyond the glare of I-40. Fort Nashborough predates James White's Fort by seven years. But after Gov. William Blount christened White's 1786 settlement as his territorial capital in 1791, Knoxville quickly outpaced Nashville, and struck visitors of the 1790s as the busier and more impressive of the two villages.
Knoxville made sense as a state capital in those days, when most of Tennesseans were East Tennesseans. When Nashville founder James Robertson—the guy who named Nashville after a tarheel pal—wanted to take a role in founding a state, he had to come to Knoxville for the privilege. Knoxville was the birthplace of Tennessee and, for more than 20 years, the capital.
A young refugee of the French Revolution, future citizen-king Louis Phillippe, visited both cities in 1797; he remarked in his journal that Knoxville was much larger, but Nashville was 'infinitely better situated.' He was a prophet.
Nashville was hundreds of river miles closer to the shipping centers of the Mississippi; the Cumberland, though narrow, was far better suited for navigation than the circuitous, treacherous, shoal-ridden upper Tennessee. Nashville greeted its first steamboat in 1819, nine years before Knoxville did. It made a big difference. By 1820, Nashville was already a little bigger than Knoxville. Then it left us in the red dust.
Meanwhile, the state capital moved west with the population, tarrying for a spell in Murfreesboro. The state was nearly half a century old in 1843 when, with the encouragement of some powerful Nashville businessmen, the boomtown on the Cumberland became the state's permanent capital. Nashville blossomed while Knoxville, bereft of its raison d'etre, wilted.
It was the Jacksonian era, when a Nashville suburbanite was president of the United States. Knoxville, predictably, was the disgruntled center of anti-Jackson sentiment, as it had been since the day John Sevier drew a sword on Young Hickory on the courthouse lawn back in 1803. In 1836, Knoxville launched an anti-Jacksonian presidential candidate. To Jackson's embarrassment, Hugh White, son of Knoxville's founder, carried Tennessee—but not much of the rest of the nation, which didn't understand Tennessee politics.
Those political divisions remained forever. During the Civil War, Nashville was solidly Confederate, while Knoxville was a center of Unionist sentiment. Both cities endured battles, both of them well-entrenched Union defenders surviving desperate Confederate sieges. Knoxville's was first, in late 1863. Nashville's came more than a year later, when the outcome of the war was obvious to nearly everyone except Hood and Forrest.
What Nashville's battle lacked in significance it made up in carnage. It was bigger and more ruinous than Knoxville's, which must have been a matter of some satisfaction to those Nashvillians who, four months before Appomattox, were beginning to fret the war might end before their city had a single battle to glorify.
The Civil War also perpetuated inter-city political tensions. Nashville was solidly Democratic. Knoxville wasn't solidly anything, but was home to lots and lots of Republicans, including many of the radical, Confederate-punishing wing. The most powerful Nashvillian of the postwar era was a Knoxvillian: hardcore Reconstructionist Republican Gov. Parson Brownlow.
By then, Nashville was earning a reputation as a publishing center. That and the establishment of several colleges in Nashville, most notably Vanderbilt (1873), gave it a patrician air. Nashville began advertising itself as the Athens of the South.
Knoxville wasn't the Athens of Anything, but it did boast its own, older college, East Tennessee University. Republican legislators, Brownlow's old allies, one-upped Nashville when they rewarded Unionist-rich East Tennessee by naming ETU as the official federally supported "University of Tennessee" in 1877. Nashvillians would grumble about that decision for generations; some still do.
Nashville got Knoxville back in 1897. Because the state centennial exposition celebrated a Knoxville event—the creation of the state's first constitution on Gay Street in 1796—some Knoxvillian civic leaders thought much of the celebration should have been held here, along with whatever corporate or state-funded perquisites that came with it. But the whole thing stayed in Nashville, which earned a permanent perk, Centennial Park, home to the world's only full-size Parthenon outside of that other Athens.
Both cities boomed in the late Victorian era as commercial and industrial centers. More than Nashville, Knoxville was always a seething mass of political divisiveness. Nashville was a city of parks and monuments; Knoxville was sometimes described as the biggest city in America with no parks at all. Knoxville could never match Nashville in monuments because we could never agree on whom to honor.
By the early 20th century, Knoxville and Nashville discovered college football, and a way to clash head-to-head. The goal of Knoxville fans wasn't the national championship, but an opportunity to beat the Vanderbilt Commodores, which Knoxvillians viewed as the gridiron embodiment of uppity Nashville. In their first 35 years of playing , the Vols beat Vandy only twice.
Meanwhile, the 20th century threw a curve that startled both cities. Before the 1920s, Nashville had little more connection to music than other Southern cities. Country music became popular not only in the South but also on radio stations in Chicago and New York, where the earliest country-music records were made.
Nashville's WSM wasn't the first radio station in Tennessee—that was likely Knoxville's WNOX. It wasn't necessarily the most authentic. But, supported by a big Nashville insurance company, WSM was the strongest. And, like Nashville itself, it was well-situated—with a signal that, unimpeded by nearby mountains, reached from coast to coast. In late 1925, WSM began to experiment with broadcasting what was called "old-time" or "hillbilly" music to a national audience. WSM let country music slip in Nashville's back gate, never expecting that it would stay—and eventually move into Belle Meade.
By the 1930s, Nashville commenced its habit of raiding Knoxville stations of their country stars. Several of the musicians who made Music City famous were former Knoxvillians. Today, Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins are the two performers who have streets named for them on Nashville's Music Row.
Meanwhile, UT hired a football coach for the primary purpose of beating the Vanderbilt Commodores. In 1928, he did. Bob Neyland leveled the playing field, rendering the Vanderbilt-UT football rivalry a passionate tradition. UT and Vandy outdid each other for decades; their contest became the 20th-century mask for the old Nashville-Knoxville rivalry. It took a long time to settle that Edwardian-era grudge, but it seems to have worked out in Knoxville's favor.
What's next? There's always politics, of course. And there's population. Consolidated government gave Nashville population a big boost. Nashville/Davidson is several times bigger than Knoxville proper. And Davidson County's bigger than Knox County. But, for the record, according to the last census, Knox County's gaining. Don't think the suits in Music City aren't watching their backs.